In the past two years, we have all worked from home. Yet, most of us always had this feeling that we were being watched. We felt guilty if we squeezed in a few domestic chores while working and slogged for hours to compensate for the “comfort of working from home”. This guilt and fear-laced relationship with authority has been a cause of much deliberation for psychologists and political theorists.
I was once aghast to observe that janitors in most offices weren’t allowed to sit, even where there were sprawling lounges and waiting rooms on the office premises. I had entered the restroom and saw the cleaning lady sleeping on the marble slab adjacent to the water basin. This was the first time I had even noticed her, sitting or lying down. She immediately got up and started to clean the surface of the wall. The idea that the cleaning staff has to be always seen cleaning and standing is an unwritten rule that no one questions. No one observes them when they are doing what they are supposed to do. The moment you see them rest, or fiddling with their phone is when they attract attention. And no one in that position wants attention. Incessant action, performative work then is a way of remaining in the shadows, not making eye-contact, not being noticed for anything other than what you are supposed to do in your office hours.
This kind of reaction, of busying in the presence of authority, is not unique to janitors. In physical offices, we all have pretended to work in the presence of our team leader, or someone senior. Even at home, we have pretended to work and the hours we spent away from our laptops doing something else during office time was filled with guilt, anxiety and fear of being watched and caught.
In fact, the physical presence of the authority figure is not even needed to instil the fear of being watched. The authority figure is a psychological concept. English philosopher Jeremy Bentham had conceptualised a hypothetical architectural structure called panopticon where the inmates of the building will know that they are being watched but will not be able to see the supervisor. In patients of paranoid schizophrenia, it manifests itself as hallucinations. TV, transistors, cameras and bulbs become their portal to the fear that someone is watching them. But in a fully functioning, mentally stable person that fear exists, and exists in its worst form in the office place.
For Bentham, a utilitarian, panopticon’s effects were to be positive. That the fear of being watched will keep everyone well-behaved without an actual entity watching over them. However, French philosopherMichel Foucault was a huge critic of this concept. He compared it to a town under quarantine and a mental cage. For him the structure was designed to deny sovereignty of the individual and discipline them. All kinds of institutions from barracks to jails, and asylums to schools or hospitals are designed on the lines of a panoptical structure, as per Foucault, to condition people to be obedient always.
Philosophy aside, most of us have an uncomfortable relationship with authority. No matter, how many times you have been told to bargain harder, say no, or be assertive and communicate directly with you team leader, we all fail at it simply because the very idea that someone has the authority to fire us, or humiliate us, stall our career and make our life difficult at the workplace simply makes these tips inadequate.
What we are dealing with in these situations is not merely another flawed individual but a person who has power over us and who has been handed legitimate authority. You might be lucky to have a hip and happening manager. But these are individual exceptions. We may try to instill compassionate leadership styles by getting a Buddhist monk for the company’s annual events. But as long as organisationally and structurally workplaces do not de-link or at least limit power and authority vis-à-vis competence and seniority, our workspaces will be nothing more than mental cage. And such an environment is neither conducive for creativity nor problem solving. There are many ways of rewarding competence and experience. Authority, when attained through the bottom-up means of looking up to someone because of their competence and contribution is far more benign compared to authority that derives its legitimacy from a designation. Often designations in the corporate world are mere wordplays to throw around weight.
The self-improvement industry can keep giving their two cents on improving your negotiation skills, and the leadership coaches can keep lecturing about producing better benevolent leaders. But as long as the psychological fear of authority and the performative work — which is unproductive to all organisations and the individuals to say the least — are not systematically dismantled, we all will be in a lose-lose situation.
(The writer is a mental health and behavioral sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found as @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)